Archive for the 'Observance' Category

Developing Jewish Habits

I recognize that the new Gregorian Calendar year 2012 has zero significance in Judaism, but as a part of the wider Western culture in which I live, I couldn’t help but notice that January 1 is a time that many people try to make changes in their lives to develop healthier habits and achieve their goals.  While January 1 isn’t celebrated with a lot of big bashes in Israel – in fact for many people it goes unnoticed – after all, January 2 is another work day (even though it was a Sunday this year).  I even forgot what was going on when I heard fireworks coming from the Arab neighborhood next door at midnight.

But I’m reading blogs about having a healthier, happier new year, and I want to be a part of that.  I feel myself sliding out of good habits and into some bad habits.  And I realized that a lot about observant Judaism is following the right habits.  Certainly if one keeps Shabbat merely out of habit or ritual then a lot is lost, but the regularity of the week, focused on Shabbat, the regularity of prayer and of daily ritual, are designed to maintain a mode of being and living that follows the Torah.

Shabbat is many wonderful things, and it’s also inconvenient at times.  But for Jews who have been observing Shabbat laws for years or their entire lives, it’s also a habit.  A person learns not to take long trips on Friday afternoon or to schedule the DVR to record the basketball game on Saturday.

Sometimes I’m enjoying a relaxing Friday afternoon or the opposite, a crazed, rushed, get-everything-in-before-Shabbat afternoon, and I joke to my husband that I’d like to reschedule with God because Shabbat is just inconvenient right now and I’d rather do Monday.  Of course it doesn’t work like that.

But before I became observant there weren’t too many absolutes in my life.  I could reschedule pretty much anything if needed be.  When I first started observing Shabbat, I would sometimes get invited to something on a Saturday and I’d say, “I can’t because of Shabbat”.  Uninitiated friends would say “Oh, it’s this week too?”  I’d joke that I had a standing appointment with God.

For a fun video representation of the type of situation, see the video below.

Check any strategy about fulfilling a new year’s resolution, and I think you’ll see two things in common — commitment and consistency.  You can’t lose weight and keep it off with one week or proper diet and exercise.  Spiritual growth requires the same, and so no, Shabbat is not optional.

I’ve fallen out of the habit of praying on a daily basis.  And it is harder to get started again than it was to wake up on a morning that I’m feeling unmotivated and uninspired and to begin a conversation with God.  What would be even harder is if I had never done it in the first place.  Because I already know how to pray, at least in terms of traditional prayer, it’s easier to get started again than if I hadn’t ever.

As with building any sustainable habit, it’s also important to start small. It’s unrealistic to think that I’ll now spend an hour a day in prayer.  I’m disappointed in myself for committing to only 5 minutes a day.  But I know that it’s most definitely better than nothing.

Our sages understood that there would be times when a person would be unable or unwilling to pray, and they instituted laws for such times – condensed prayers or even exemptions.  Today it’s accepted that one should pray daily pretty much no matter what, because of the understanding that if there are too many interruptions to this important habit, that it will be more difficult to pray when our minds are again at ease.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is the established time for Jews to reflect on the past year, repent for misdeeds, and make resolutions to correct their behavior in the upcoming year.  What is less widely understood and advertised is that once a year isn’t really enough. Teshuva, repentance and self-reflection is for all year long, and while it’s easy to mock people who make new years resolutions, knowing full well that the odds of success are statistically against them, I admire those who make an honest effort.  Striving to do better, physically, emotionally, or in any other way, is a Jewish value and what it means to be fully alive as a human being with the capacity for conscious change.

Rosh Hashnah comes 10 days before Yom Kippur, the “Day of Judgment”, when God inscribes our fate for good, in “The Book of Life” or, well, something else.  However, according to Kabbalah, our fate is not “sealed” until Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that we even have until Hanukkah.  Additionally, Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each month, is considered a mini Yom Kippur, and as such some people even have the custom of fasting and adding special prayers on the day before Rosh Chodesh.  And in the daily Amidah prayer, there is a prayer for forgiveness where one has the opportunity to review and ask for forgiveness for transgressions.  While many people wait until the days before Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness from their fellow man they have wronged, the fact of the matter is that we can do this any day of the year.  My yoga teacher says that each breath is an opportunity to cleanse and start anew.

There are a lot of reminders that we can do better, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the loudest calls for spiritual improvement (shofar blasts), and the secular new year the loudest call for physical improvement (free one-month gym trials).  Given how difficult habits are to establish and keep, I think it’s great we have so many reminders.

The key is not to get discouraged, for each year, month, week, or day, is another chance to try again.


Should American Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays Americans just don’t want to let go of.  What do I mean? Despite the fact that it’s pretty inaccurately rooted in history, it’s probably the most widely celebrated American holiday.  Flights are booked, schools are closed, a bird is pardoned by the President, and for a lot of families, it’s the only time of year that everyone gathers together around the dinner table, perhaps second only to Christmas.

The tie to Thanksgiving is so strong that a lot of American ex-pats living in Israel are participating in Thanksgiving dinners, or Thanksgiving-themed Shabbat dinners the following evening.  From a culinary perspective, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be such a big deal to observant Jews.  One of the lifestyle adjustments that stood out for me when becoming observant was consuming (and preparing) large meals each Shabbat.  Thanksgiving ain’t no thang for the Jewish homemaker, who whips together a lavish meal for 10 the day of.  Headlines about preparing for a Thanksgiving meal one month in advance seem laughable.

So what is it about Thanksgiving that speaks American Jews? The football? The shopping the day after?

Well, not so surprisingly there is disagreement about what Thanksgiving means and what Jewish participation in the American holiday should look like.  A terrific article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on My Jewish Learning discusses the differing halachic opinions on Thanksgiving celebrationPoskim have been concerned about whether it is appropriate to distinguish between “secular society,” “Gentile society,” and “idol-worshiping society” in modern American culture.  In short, the three main opinions are:

  1. Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, yet “celebration” should be limited.
  2. Any form of involvement in Thanksgiving is prohibited, as it is a Gentile holiday.
  3. Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday, and celebration can take any (halachic) form appropriate for secular observance.

Rabbi Broyde concludes that as long as Thanksgiving is celebrated in a completely secular way, it is permissible and even advisable to celebrate: “For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper.”

While the U.S. Government has not been perfect in its treatment toward Jews, there is a reason why it hosts the largest Jewish community outside of Israel.  The United States of America provided unprecedented opportunities for oppressed Jews around the world to practice their religion (or unfortunately to leave it behind) as they wished, and to climb the economic ladder.  Nonetheless, Jews have faced discrimination in the U.S., and the government did not act soon enough to take action when news about the concentration camps and the Holocaust reached its shores.  Still, I think Jewish-American success is something to be celebrated and to be thankful for.  I have strong doubts that if my grandparents and great-grandparents did not flee economic devastation and persecution in Europe to seek refuge in my native country, that I would be here today.

Being thankful is an intrinsic part of what it means to be Jewish.  The English word, “Jew” is a translation of the word “Yehudi”, יהודי in Hebrew, which literally means “one who gives thanks.”  Halachically, the first sentence one should say each morning upon waking begins: “Modeh ani…”, מודה אני…  which means “I am grateful”.  It is a statement of gratitude to God for the ability to wake and continue our lives into a new day.

I won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving this year.  For starters, today is a work day and I don’t feel in the spirit, as the day is not recognized much around me.  I suppose that in this way I feel more Israeli than American.  With Shabbat the following day, Shabbat stands out more in my calendar.  Secondly, I’m married to a Canadian, who doesn’t have the tradition of spending the last Thursday in November feasting.  But my thoughts are with the rest of my family, who will be gathered around the table in America without me.  I’m very thankful for them and all that they, and the U.S.A., have given me.

Now that I’ve established that it’s kosher to celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. (and probably also in Israel), here comes another question.  Should the meal in the U.S. end with “Next year in Jerusalem”?

The Shul You Go to and the 27 You Don’t Go to

one jew stranded on an island, two synagoguesThere’s an old joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues (shuls) — one he goes to, and one to not go to.  Nu, Jews like to kvetch, and despite the tremendous quality control in the traditional prayer service, a popular question to ask this time of year is “where do you go to daven (pray)?”

Though about 95% of congregations in Jerusalem by my rough estimate would qualify for what I would consider to be a traditional prayer service, people are very picky about where they pray.  During my first Yom Kippur in Israel, I was pretty stumped about what to do.  I didn’t have a membership anywhere, but the thing is, I didn’t need one.  That was freeing, comforting, but also a bit threatening.  There are shuls everywhere, and on Yom Kippur, all of Jerusalem stops in its tracks and pours into them.

I stayed over at friend’s house in the eclectic neighborhood in Nachlaot.  She knew that the service at the Inbal Hotel would have its doors open to all visitors, so we went there for Kol Nidre.  It was by far not the closest option, so during the walk over, I was able to appreciate the silent streets and all the other people, most of whom were dressed in white, off to their shul of choice.

The next morning and throughout the day was an adventure in finding a shul that matched my brand new Artscroll machzor.  In addition to struggling to bridge the discrepancy between my prayer book designed for a North American congregation, I was also trying to figure out what the prayers were saying, doing, and where the world the congregation was at, because it was my first time at an Orthodox minyan for the holiday.

I’ve had all sorts of various Yom Kippur adventures in the two years since then, and I just have to believe that despite the social pressure to find the “right” place to daven, I’ve been in the right place, where I needed to be, having the experience that I needed to have.

Despite all of the similarities between the prayer services at all of the Yom Kippur services I’ve been to here, it’s still striking how different the feel can be.  And that, I think, is why such an emphasis is placed on where to go.  We are a people who toil, squabble, and fuss over details.  The six books of the Talmud, expounded upon in 60 tractates of Gemara, and expounded upon in additional commentary, explore the how of Judaism.

Having coming from communities in the United States, where the choices of congregations were limited to one or two, or at best a few, not to mention the tremendous membership fees, I initially didn’t understand the scope of synagogues in Jerusalem.  To me, you picked a place, and you prayed!  But by visiting different synagogues on Shabbat throughout the year, I gradually began to feel that some places were less welcoming, some blasted in the heat in the winter, some places blew through the prayers so fast I nearly got whiplash, and some were longer than synagogues in the U.S. (I didn’t move here for that!), and I too was developing my list of shuls I don’t go to.

One of the things I appreciate about coming to Israel is giving up some of the luxury of choice.  I found something as simple as buying laundry detergent in the United States to be exhausting.  Instead, I gained the opportunity to choose from a variety of congregations in which to pray.

When overwhelmed by variety or pressure to find the “perfect” place, I think it’s important to remember that while pulling apart differences with a fine-tooth comb, there is a big picture.  No matter where I pray, I can start with:

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב, משכנותך ישראל – במדבר כ’ד, ה

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. (Numbers: 24: 5)

This prayer, as part of the series of morning blessings, is a reference to “tents of learning and prayer”.  This “tent” can also be the Jewish home, by the way. This verse is the first sentence of a paragraph which expresses reverence for the synagogue, which takes the place of the Holy Temple.  The great thing about a tent, though, is that you can put it up yourself, or with the help of some friends, and you can take it wherever you may go.

May we be blessed with the ability to connect to God from our “tent”, wherever we may be.

Boys Will Be Boys?

One of the fundamental principles guiding traditional Jewish rituals, as well as social behavior, is the difference between the sexes. With this in mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about this article in Newsweek reviewing the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot. The book makes the argument that behavioral gender differences are socialized and not biological.

In a nutshell, the theory goes that there are tiny biological differences among the genders that parents pick up on and through their nurturing, they increase the severity of these differences, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve heard multiple parents, particularly in observant circles, claim that without any cues from parents or other children, that boys will gravitate towards cars and toy guns and that girls will prefer dolls. But is that really true, or incomplete anecdotal evidence? I can contrast that with personal anecdotal evidence. I never liked dolls. Ever.

Spiritually Superior Women

One of the reasons given for women’s exemption from most time-bound mitzvot is that they simply don’t need them — they are on a higher spiritual level. What exactly does this mean, and is this true?

Within this category, there are mitzvot that women are exempt from and essentially forbidden from performing, such as laying tefillin, and there are mitzvot that women are exempt from, but they still get reward from performing (albeit less reward than a man, being they are not obligated). This includes mitzvot such as limmud Torah. How exactly one, or God in particular, quantifies reward and what that does to a person is not something I’ve ever seen discussed. If you have a thought or a link or a reference to contribute, I’d be really interested.

“Feminization” of Judaism

Anyways, I’ve frequently made the argument on this blog that some aspects of modern Jewish observance might be best adapted to modern realities, especially with regard to gender parity. And I wanted to continue to fight that fight. That is, until I read a recent article in Slate, “The End of Jewish Men?“. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow recounts how the “feminization” of liberal streams of Judaism has essentially pushed men out.

Now I heard from some Orthodox teachers of mine in the form of a warning that this is exactly why women should be discouraged from seeking the pulpit. I found it hard to believe that if a woman was called up to read from the Torah that it would actually drive men away.

The theory goes, that if women come out of the home, the childcare, the meal preparation, or from behind the mechitza and start leading services, that men won’t find their place instead in traditionally female roles, and they’ll be left without a place. However, according to my husband’s anecdotal evidence, and statistics cited by Tuhus-Dubrow, this is exactly what has happened. “While women often clamor to participate in male-dominated institutions, female-dominated institutions are more likely to drive males away.”

It’s About “Rights”

I am of course excluding here the all-important halachic reasonings behind women traditionally being excluded from public rituals. The thing is, that is exactly the point. This argument isn’t about Jewish law! It is about a sense of fairness. On July 4th of all days, I’m sorry to deliver such a blow to the American psyche, but Judaism isn’t about “rights”.

At a modern Orthodox synagogue that I attended in Washington, D.C., there would be an afternoon Shabbat service for women only on a monthly basis. There women could fully participate, including saying blessings over Torah reading and reading from the Torah. It was poorly attended. As far as I’m aware, there wasn’t though a movement for the same in the main sanctuary.

In more liberal streams of Judaism there is. And I question what it is based on. After all, why is there no movement to bring parity to all of the tribes of Israel. I’m unaware of a movement to remove the honor of a Cohen getting the first aliyah and a member of the tribe of Levi from getting the second. After all, it’s an honor that has little basis in modern life, as there is no other distinction between the tribes without the Temple. And we’re not 100% sure who is a Cohen, and most certainly not who is a Levi today anyways.

Society’s Evolution

There are several points in the argument that there may be a sociological in addition to a spiritual (and therefore less verifiable) reason for the differing halachic treatment between the sexes that actually bring me solace.

It seems to me that even within the last 200 years (which is extremely late in Jewish halachic history) the daily routine for women has changed considerably more than for men. Particularly in the Western, Jewish community, most men now find themselves behind a desk or in the service industry rather than in the fields. They are expected to go to work (or yeshiva) every day.

Women, on the other hand, have dramatically expanded possibilities for how they live their lives. Whereas women were almost unquestionably housewives, as early as their teenage years, today they have myriad educational and career opportunities. There are effective ways for choosing when and how many children to have. There are daycares. There is infant formula. My goodness, there are washing machines and prepared sauces, not to mention entire prepared meals. Childbirth is far less deadly, and outside of ultra-Orthodox circles, the average age of a bride has gone up by several years.

Without answering the question whether or not any of these new developments provide a better lifestyle than going without them, the fact remains that when it no longer takes all day to provide for a family’s basic needs, women have a heck of a lot more time on their hands.

Halachic Implications

I think that this is very useful to keep in mind when thinking about the following mitzvot:

  • Limmud Torah – If there are limited books and limited time resources, it seems unreasonable for women to be required to also study with the same rigor as men. Women’s minds may have seemed weaker because even as girls they had more obligations at home and fewer educational opportunities.
  • Haircovering – Wearing a hat or a scarf in public was certainly in the norm 200 years ago, and in that context, revealing hair would be showing a part of the body that society as a whole was accustomed to seeing covered, at least partially. There is undoubtedly more to it than fashion though. It’s true that hair is a sexual part of a woman’s body. But why then would covering be reserved only for married women? If we try to imagine a time without billboards, television, and teen magazines, it would not be unreasonable to assume that women were not very aware of their sexuality until marriage, which was not that long after puberty. Essentially, society has become desensitized to seeing pretty much any part of a woman’s body, and requiring haircovering ignores that fact (which is either out of touch with reality or deeply in touch with a sense of values, despite the circumstance, depending on how you look at it). It’s amazing to me actually that Western society reacted as it did to the “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Superbowl half-time show. Why is a nipple a big deal when women proudly show off the rest of their uncensored breast on television and in the flesh (no pun intended)?
  • Mitzvot Aseh She Hazman Gramma , time-bound positive commandments: Women are exempt from a whole slew of these, and as a result, the assumption is that there is some sort of clal or overriding concept. Usually the line of thinking is that women are so busy in the home and taking care of their children that it would be inappropriate to take them away from this task in order to perform another mitzvah, things such as praying Shema by a certain time, wearing tzizit (even though you have all day to do it), and shaking a lulav. In my mind, this is more problematic. Every woman, even those with twelve children, is bound by many if not most time- bound commandments. To name some examples: Hearing Shabbat kiddush, Prayer (rabinically obligated, and according to most opinions the time-bound Shacharit and Minchah), Chanukkah candles and hearing (even reading!) the Purim Megillah, Shabbat and Yom Tov candlelighting (at really specific times!), eating matzah and maror and drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder.

And More Questions

So where is the place in Orthodox Jewish life for the man who prefers to stay at home and raise his children and for the woman who wants to be a Torah scholar? It’s there, and it’s growing. But is it a good thing?

Do the Dishes Dunk

If setting up a new home and a kosher kitchen wasn’t enough work, there is a mitzvah that doesn’t get much attention that has played center stage in getting all of our utensils together.  And that is toiveling, ritually immersing pots, pans, dishes, silverware, and all other metal and glass utensils used to prepare or consume food in a mikveh.

It’s been a busy time of year for the mikvaot kelim, ritual baths used for purifying new dishes, because many people buy a whole set of separate meat and dairy dishes for Passover. (Alternately you can boil and burn your year-round dishes and cutlery.)

While it’s a separate mitzvah from kashrut, the two are often necessarily intertwined — because you can’t eat without both unless you live on disposable dishes and cutlery.  But oddly enough, it seems to me that toiveling gets far less attention, yet it seems so much weirder.

Looking to the origin of the mitzvah, which comes from Bamidbar/Numbers 31:23, Elazar HaKohen instructs the army returning from war with the Midianites.  Regarding all that they have captured, he says:“Kol davar asher yavoh ba’aish ta’averu ba’aish v’taher” — All utensils that have been used to cook forbidden foods must be purged of the flavor they have absorbed in the manner that they were used through fire and must be purified.

Kashrut entails avoiding or removing forbidden “flavors” from dishes (meat from milk and milk from meat), but this implies an extra level of purification.

According to the Gemara, Avodah Zara 75b, this added step of purification is accomplished through immersion in a mikvah — “V’chol Asher lo Yavoh Ba’aish Ta’aveeru Ba’mayim” – Anything that cannot be placed in fire should be passed through water.  We learn that any dishes and/or utensils have been previously owned by a non-Jew have to be ritually purified before they can be used to prepare food.  By extension, these laws are taken to apply to all eating utensils purchased from non-Jews.  That doesn’t sound so politically correct.  Perhaps that’s why this isn’t so popularly discussed.

Flipping back to the connection between kashrut and toiveling though, we can make sense of it all.  The table we eat our meals upon is likened to the mizbeach, the altar in the Temple.  Likewise, the vessels and utensils used for preparing food and for dining must be given special holiness and complete certainty that they are reserved for their holy purpose .

I can honestly say I didn’t have this lofty goal in mind when shlepping down cartloads of dishes (and trying not to break them when crossing busy intersections!) to the mikveh.  And preparation for immersion requires removing any substance that would intervene between the water and the surface of the utensil, such as dirt, rust, stickers, glue from labels, and price markings. I came home one night only to realize that in the dark I didn’t see some stickers on the bottom of dishes (why oh why do they do that?)

At the end of the day though, it does give a feeling to a fresh start in a new home, and hey, you only need to do it once!  Just remember that when selling chametz  for Passover — which this year needs to be done by the time this blog post is published — not to sell your dishes and only to sell the crumbs!  In a funny case of halachic logic, your dishes here would be then sold to a non-Jew and would have to be toiveled again after Pesach!

Toiveling guidelines from the Star K kashrut agency.

Yid With a Lid: Reflections on Hair Covering One Month Later

My initial blog post on hair covering got a lot of traffic and comments, at least by this blog’s modest standards (no pun intended).  Halacha and Jewish tradition indicates that it takes 30 days for a habit to sink in (for instance, if it’s within the first 30 days of saying V’ten tal umatar in the Amidah and you’re not sure if you forgot, you should assume that you did).  So, now that it’s 30 days since the wedding, I can more thoughtfully reflect, from a bit of experience, about hair covering.

First of all, it hasn’t been that big of a deal.  I went through a phase as a child where I wore baseball hats all the time.  And if it were socially acceptable for little girls to do so, I probably would have continued.  I even slept with the darn thing on.  Now that I live in Jerusalem, I have worn hats to protect my head from the sun and from the cold and all the while felt self-conscious about it (someone might think I’m married!)  Well, I can now wear my headgear freely.  I’m even having fun with it.

hair covering ileneWhile it is generally accepted by most Achronim (post-medieval halachic authorities) that the Torah prohibits married women from showing their hair and that therefore it is binding in all times and places, this paper (pdf) points out that earlier authorities, the Rishonim, found the prohibition to be Rabbanic and also subjective to change based on community norms.

Halachically, it seems to me that in Jerusalem, it’s clearly dat Yehudit for a married woman to cover her hair.  When I walk through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Geula I find the dress of some of the men in particular to be quite comical, some with white socks or stockings and long frocks.  But what are they doing?  They’re mirroring the dress of some great rebbe.  In a sense, my choosing to cover my hair because the women whose Jewish practice I most admire and wish to emulate do so, is doing the same thing.

What to Wear Over Hair

One of the aspects of Jewish religious observance that is not often a part of public discourse is women’s headcovering.  Sure, it’s a very personal thing.  That is why I hesitated to write about this.

My concern is that the rabbis feel the same way.

I don’t take this issue lightly and when I hear married women tell me how grateful they are for this “mitzvah” because they don’t have to spend time doing their hair in the morning I laugh.  That’s not the way I like to make decisions about my Jewish observance.  And see that photo on the right?  Hashem gave me a rosh paruah that looks like that in less than 2 minutes.

When I meet someone for the first time, I say “I’m tall with dark curly hair”.  Online, the thought that by wearing a hat or banadana I’ll look significantly different than my avatar photo is a lot more threatening to me than the thought that my legal name will no longer match @ilenerosenblum.

At various points over the last three years I’ve examined the sources in Jewish text used to substantiate the requirement that married women cover their hair.  The arguments, as I understand them, are as follows:

  1. A woman’s hair is ervah and so it should be covered.  There is a secular, rational basis for this – women’s hair is sexual, and if a woman is saving her sexual energy exclusively for her husband, it makes sense to keep it hidden from everyone else.
  2. In Berakhot 24a:
    R. Yitshak said: “An [uncovered] tefah(handbreadth) in a woman is
    erva.” Regarding what [did R. Yitshak say this]? If in regard to looking [at women], did not R. Sheshet say: “. . . Anyone who gazes even at a woman’s little finger, is as if he gazes at her private parts”? Rather, regarding his wife and reading the Shema.

  3. It shows that a woman is married and ergo unavailable to other men (having sex with a married woman carries a harsher punishment than if she is unmarried).
  4. The sotah, a woman who is accused of adultery, is brought before the Kohen and her head is uncovered as a source of embarassment and from this we learn that married women covered their hair and that removing it is embarassing.
  5. And the Kohen shall set the woman before God, and loosen the hair of the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy; and the Kohen shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse. (Bamidbar/Numbers 5:18)

  6. Kabbalistic teachings that I have not studied explain that there is a certain powerful energy exuded by a woman’s hair, and that energy can become destructive it if it is not contained.  Therefore, it therefore must be covered. This energy is activated when a woman consummates marriage, so it doesn’t apply to unmarried women and it continues to apply to divorced or widowed women.
  7. Dat Yehudit – It’s how Jewish women dress.

My thoughts on these matters, respectively:

  1. If a woman’s hair is really ervah, then why shouldn’t unmarried women cover their hair?  If gazing at women at all is inappropriate, even a woman’s little finger, then why don’t we wear burkas?
  2. This argument really only works in Israel and in observant Jewish communities of the Diaspora.  Otherwise, if a woman is covering all of her hair with a bandana, to the public, including most Jews, it would signify one or more of the following.  That she is: a) hiking b) undergoing chemotherapy c) a hippie d) having a really bad hair day.  It would likely NOT indicate that she is married. Rather, a wedding ring seems to serve this purpose in modern Western culture.  Additionally, I don’t feel that wardrobe choices must be made by what will or will not suggest to a man the degree of punishment that illicit sexual relations would incur. Many women choose to cover their hair with a sheitel, a wig.  Some of them are pretty convincingly natural looking.  They are sometimes made with the wearer’s own hair and often look nicer than the original hair style.  The only difference is that it’s not actually attached to her head.  The justifications for this I’ve heard follow these 3 lines of argument:  a) What man wants to run his fingers through a wig?  b) A wig covers all of a woman’s hair and is therefore superior to a hat or wrap and a woman is less likely to remove it in public because of how odd that would look. c) The point is not to look unattractive and so it doesn’t matter if the woman looks more attractive wearing the sheitel.  The point is that it’s not actually attached to her head.   In some communities the sheitel is covered by a hat so that no one is mistaken.  That sounds delightfully sweltering in the Israeli summer, but the point is neither comfort nor fashion.

    I feel that a) I’m not sure this is a valid line of halachic reasoning and again, not something I’m going to base my wardrobe choices on. b) Most sources and contemporary practice indicate that it is not critical to cover all the hair. c) Um, I thought the point if anything was to send a message to guys to get the message that a woman is off limits? 

    I will take the time also here to mention that it is a practice in some ultra-Orthodox hasidic circles for women to shave off their real hair.  This stemmed from a fear that when she would immerse in the mikvah that some hair, if it was long, might accidentally float to the top or fall out and land on her body and thereby invalidate the dunk.  To this I will point out that halacha states that a woman should not make herself unattractive to her husband.  She shouldn’t even make herself deliberately unattractive to everyone else.  The line I hear about tzniut in general is “attractive, but not attracting”.  To this I will refer to point a – what man wants to run his fingers over his wife’s bald head?

  3. The sotah procedure isn’t in place anymore and I don’t feel so great about basing how I look on an observance stemming from the practice of handling women suspected of adultery.
  4. I don’t know.  I haven’t gotten into Kabbalah.  I have noticed however that Jewish law seems to completely omit the possibility that a woman might not be a virgin when she gets married for the first time.
  5. Rambam explains that Dat Yehudit varies from place to place.

    Hilkhot Ishut 24:12: What is Dat Yehudit? It is the modest behavior practiced by daughters of Israel. These are the things, that if she does [any] one of them, she has violated Dat Yehudit: She goes out to the market place or in an open passageway and her head is uncovered and she is not wearing a redid[shawl or chador] like all the women, even though her hair is covered with a kerchief.

    I see plenty of observant women who don’t cover their hair, particularly outside of Israel. I think there is a much stronger case to be made along this line of reasoning if one lives in a community in which this is the norm.

I’ve searched and searched, for textual sources, books, and blog entries.  And I’ve not come across anything that satisfies me completely in determining why a married woman should cover her hair.  And don’t even get me started on the debate over how much!

The best textual sources that I’ve found are books by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community and Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. Several people have recommended Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Headcovering by Lynne Schreiber. I enjoyed reading the stories, but ultimately I closed the book with no answers and the introduction provided nothing new to me.

Most rabbis, it seems, want to stay far, far away from this topic.  That indicates something to me.  It’s not merely that it’s a personal issue.  By most standards, I believe, hilchot niddah are far more personal, and rabbis are more willing to make rulings in this area.  But kisui rosh, headcovering,  appears to have a lot more wiggle room and I’m led to believe less halachic substantiation.

Here is what Willow Smith has to say about the issue:

Where does this all leave me?  I don’t want to do it just because everyone else is doing it, but yet… it seems that group think is part of being a member of the tribe, or any tribe.

When making a decision about my Jewish observance, I usually go to one or more of the following places:

  1. The sources.  I find no clear answer here.
  2. My ancestors.  What would bubbe do?  My parents have a photo of my late great-great-grandparents back in the shtetl.  In it, my great-great-grandmother is wearing a shawl that exposes the front part of her head.  Was that the norm before married women started shucking the headcovering in droves?
  3. Community.  What do others do in my community today?  This is dicey because sometimes people are misled and don’t actually do the right thing.  Group think takes over.  I don’t believe in just following the group and also, the observant Jewish community in Jerusalem is so large that I don’t feel like I’m particularly a member of any group.  I haven’t found my niche.
  4. Ask a rabbi.  I haven’t asked a rabbi directly for a psak on what to do, but I don’t think I’d get one.  Previous conversations with rabbis on the subject have led me to believe that it’s one of the last things that they’d want to do.

I’ve taken the chance that some of what I’ve written above may be inaccurate or misunderstood.  I did my best to report accurately.  In the even that I’ve been mistaken, please leave a comment.

If you disagree, leave a comment.  If you agree, leave a comment.

I hope that this can be the start of an ongoing process and exploration and conversation.  If I offended anyone with my opinions, I would like to apologize.  I took that possibility into consideration but on the whole I thought that it was more important to lay thoughts and feelings out there than to be diplomatic and not dive into the heart of the matter or to shirk away from something difficult.  Sometimes it’s only when you remove diplomacy that the true discussion can begin.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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